Today is Vitou’s birthday! Our friendship goes back for more than five years and has been a really important and central part to my time here in Cambodia. He is a pretty amazing guy, so I thought I would give you a picture of how great he is and tell some of the stories of our friendship.
We first met outside a cafe called Jars of Clay, in the south of the city. That particular restaurant isn’t there due to COVID (but they have another site which is still running). He was a tuk tuk driver there. What I am going to say I mean literally: he was a godsend. If it wasn’t for Vitou, I think my arrival in Cambodia would have been extremely difficult. However, whenever I needed to find somewhere or something, I would ask Vitou. Two examples of how it would have been if I hadn’t found Vitou were etched on my mind.
The first is the attempt to find the office of the organisation I work with. I was, at that point, down some back alley in a confusing part of the city. I had a pin of the office’s location, however, the Google maps for Phnom Penh at that point was not particularly accurate (it has improved a little). It did not reflect the layout of the smaller side streets where the office was. However, I did not know this. So I tried to go there for a lunch that had been organised for a member of staff. It was close to where I was so I decided I could walk. It was in the middle of the day so that was a really stupid idea in the first place. But when it became apparent that I would not find the office and I could not find any shade in the heat, I realised the stupidity of the plan. My hands were so sweaty, I could no longer use my phone as I was just smearing the screen and my taps were not being registered. I had to flag a tuk tuk driver down to take me home before I passed out. After that, I had Vitou take me to the office. He phoned up the Khmer admin assistant that worked there, got the directions and we found it. (It was also reassuring that even after this, he still found it difficult to find it the first time and had to make a number of calls.) Every time I needed to go to the office, I would have to ask Vitou. To this day, I could still not tell you where it was, despite having been there a number of times.
Every year around September or October there is a festival called Pchum Ben, and during this time, Phnom Penh empties. Everyone goes to visit family in the provinces. This included Vitou. He was away for about three days, and during that time my life was so much harder. I was taken to the wrong locations at least twice, once on the complete opposite side of the city: I wanted to go to the south-west of the city and I was taken to the north-east of the city. Without Vitou, I imagine my first few months in Cambodia could have been a bit like that. Tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh were very geared to take foreigners to tourist places, but sometimes struggled with helping foreigners with normal day-to-day living. Vitou’s English is very good (despite what he says to the contrary) and any task was made 100 times easier with him around.
He was also really protective of me during those first few months. He made sure I was okay in most situations. In Khmer culture, you call your friends older brother/younger brother depending on their age. Although I’m 9 months older than Vitou, I still call him older brother because of the way he looked after me during that time. One funny aspect of our relationship that has changed is that he refused to take me to places where Khmer people would normally eat. He was worried I’d fall ill. So, whenever I asked to go somewhere Cambodian, he would just stop outside a restaurant for foreigners and suggest I eat there. Some of my best memories during my first few months involve Vitou (including the incident where I nearly got a Cambodian girlfriend).
I moved to Siem Reap, but we still managed to maintain our friendship. This included going to his sister’s wedding in the province, which was a massive cultural experience. (It also included the bathroom incident in Savanna Mall). One of my favourite memories of the wedding was how Vitou’s two boys decided they liked me. They couldn’t speak any English then and I could barely speak Khmer. The way we communicated was the fist bump from Big Hero 6: they’d come up to me, give me a fist bump and I would do the “Balalalala” and they’d fall into hysterics.
Whenever I had to go to Phnom Penh during that time, he would be the first to know. He would pick me up and drop me off at the bus terminal, take me to where I needed to be and look after me. I even stayed at his family’s house a few times whilst I was here.
When my parents came to visit me in 2017, Vitou was the one that took us around. There was a few days when they were in Phnom Penh on their own and Vitou was their guide. He even introduced them to my aforementioned Cambodian not-girlfriend.
During April is Khmer New Year. Vitou came to Siem Reap and stayed with me. We saw the temples at sunrise and enjoyed the festivities in Siem Reap together. It was really great having him with me. He said he was really scared to come to a city he didn’t know, but after a few days, he knew his way around it better than I did. (Vitou has an extremely good memory for places and routes and numbers, which is a very good thing for a tuk tuk driver.)
When I left Cambodia in 2017, not sure if or when I would be coming back, saying goodbye to Vitou was really hard. He gave me a photo of us at Angkor Wat to take home. (Funnily enough, a few years later a Chinese student that was staying at my parents’ house for Christmas asked if that was a photo of me and my twin.)
But I did return! I was really excited to see Vitou and his family again. I can remember arriving back in Phnom Penh and feeling like I was returning home. However, I quickly became frustrated. Previously, all my experience of Phnom Penh had been in the south: all the places I knew, all the memories were a 30-45 minute drive away. I felt like I was starting again in some ways. Little did I know that Vitou, his family and all his in-laws lived within a 10 minute drive of where I was living. Furthermore, his church (that his brother-in-law is the pastor of) was 3 minutes down the road.
This also meant that when his baby girl was born, I met her the very next day! So, over the last few years, I’ve been able to see her grow up.
I asked Vitou to give me some Khmer lessons and other days I gave him English lessons. With going to the same church, I probably saw him 4 days a week. Of course, when I had to be somewhere, he was the man I asked. He also installed my washing machine and helped me move any furniture and just generally looked after me. I remember him turning up to my door at 6:30 am to give me a birthday cake. We also went to Mondulkiri on holiday together, and this was one of my favourite holiday experiences ever. It was just easy and relaxing.
Vitou’s housing situation was getting a little bit crowded. In one house there were seven adults and five children, including two children under two. I could tell this situation was a bit difficult for everyone, which is understandable. So, I suggested the idea that we move in together. I would rent a whole house (which was relatively cheap), and Vitou and his family would provide me with free language and culture lessons and meals in return. It was also really helpful for my relationship with Kristi. In Khmer culture it would have been very inappropriate to invite Kristi over when I lived alone. However, living with a family provided an excuse. It was also great because Kristi got to experience the joy and blessing of knowing Vitou’s family like I did. (In fact, before Kristi knew them she thought I was a little too over-the-top in how I expressed how great they were. Once she got to know them, she realised I had actually be rather reserved about it.)
I loved living in that house with them. I loved seeing the children each day, and spending time with the family in the evenings, eating meals together. I learnt so much about Cambodian culture and about myself. That time also confirmed how generous, patient, kind, forgiving, caring and accepting Vitou and his family are. Anything that needed doing, any help I needed, Vitou was there for me. Bed bugs, illnesses, the death of my granddad, Vitou always was at my side. When it was my granddad’s funeral, which I had to watch online, Vitou stayed up and watched it with me so I wouldn’t feel alone. He always went out of his way to make sure that everything was good for me.
I previously had a suspicion that Vitou actually has superpowers but one incident confirmed it for me. Our house had a rat problem (as does a lot of houses here in Phnom Penh). I spotted one in the kitchen one evening. Vitou grabbed an oven glove, crouched by the fridge and waited. When the rat ran out, he grabbed it and knocked it against the wall. I did have to point out it wasn’t dead yet, so he just gave it another quick bash and the job was done. It was probably (compared to other methods I’ve used) a very humane way to dispatch of it. The fact that he did it with nothing but an oven glove amazed me.
One benefit of me paying the rent was that Vitou was able to start putting money towards building his own house. An unexpected consequence of COVID-19 was that a lot of builders were struggling for work, so he was able to start on it and finish it a lot sooner than we expected. My original plan was that he would get his house and I would find somewhere else to live. That was until he announced to me one day, “I have decided that you live with us.” So that was that.
I went to the UK for four months and we spoke most weeks. When I came back, I moved into Vitou’s new house. I love Vitou’s house and his family has that innate ability of making anyone that comes feel comfortable and welcome. We even had a few parties there (COVID-19 permitting) and inviting people to the house was easy.
Then, something crazy happened: I got engaged and then married within the space of about 5 months. This meant that I had to find a new house and prepare for the wedding. Who, of course, did I call on to help? My Cambodian brother, Vitou. We spent quite a bit of time searching for a new house. With Vitou’s help, we found the perfect house for us (with air con and washing machine to boot). Every time I needed to buy some new things for the house, Vitou was there helping us barter prices, or agree arrangements or stick it on the top of his tuk tuk (or in the back of his brother-in-law’s truck).
My wedding suit, our three-piece living room suit, our crockery cabinet, the crockery, all came about with Vitou’s help.
Of course, when it came to asking someone to be my best man at my wedding, who was I going to ask? Vitou! However, disaster struck. Sadly, Vitou came into contact with someone with COVID-19. He had to self isolate. It was a big disappointment for us both. Fortunately, he was able to isolate away from his family, so they all made it to the wedding.
Now, and throughout my time here in Cambodia, Vitou has been a source of encouragement, wisdom and advice. He has gently guided me through Khmer culture and introduced me to different parts of the country, events and celebrations. He’s allowed me to sit back and observe or participate as much as I wanted. He’s been patient when my British culture manifested at inappropriate moments and gently answered questions or corrected my misunderstanding. I’m very fortunate to have found a brother like Vitou here in Cambodia. So, have a very happy birthday.